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World War II and Purdue forge lifetime bond for Tennesseans

Photo provided

In this digitally colored photograph, E. C. Bashaw (left to right), Joe Hatfield, Warner Fisher and William Waters celebrated graduation day at Purdue on June 15, 1947. It was the last day they were all together.


It's a dog–eared old photograph of four guys, a black–and–white Kodak print of four friends from Tennessee.

The photo was made June 15, 1947. Those four and about a thousand other members of Purdue's graduating class had just received their diplomas and some good advice from Purdue President Fred Hovde:

"My charge to you is this," Hovde told the crowd inside the Hall of Music. "Let your spiritual convictions be your rudder giving directions to your role in society."

What a long way each of the four had come from the rolling hills of Tennessee. Each alone at first, now together at last and forever — at least in this photograph. They had started their college careers in 1940, but then World War II stepped into everyone's lives.

That's William "Bill" Waters, BS '47, on the right. He can still recall the day they flipped the switch and electricity surged into his tiny school at Tucker's Crossroads for the first time, making the coal oil lamps that had lit rooms and sooted the walls obsolete. That was in the sixth grade.

That's Warner Fisher, BS '47, next to Waters. Fisher was valedictorian of the 1940 senior class (21 strong) at Sharon High School. He rode a horse and buggy to school until his older brother was old enough to drive him in the family car.

Fisher grew up on a farm five miles from Sharon — about eight miles from anyplace you've ever heard of in the northwest corner of Tennessee.

Waters called Fisher the smartest of the group.

"When we studied together, Warner could look at something once and understand it," he said. "He was a real sharp guy."

Posing cheerfully beneath the ivy–covered limestone and brick fa├žade of the building that would one day bear Hovde's name, the group listened as the Purdue president advised their classmates:

"The human mind requires simple, clear ideas and positive convictions to steer its way through the jungle of problems which surround us."

Didn't they know it.

That's Joe Hatfield, BS '47, honorary PhD '05, second from the left. He grew up in Mt. Juliet, about 22 miles from Waters. They were cousins, but spent so much time together they felt like brothers.

Hatfield, too, was valedictorian of his high school class, despite missing six weeks of his sophomore year spent battling polio. Each of those days, Hatfield's aunt, Mae Sweatt, massaged Joe's legs, rubbing life back into his weary limbs.

He was 13 before electricity came to the Hatfield farm. In his book, A Cut Above the Rest, Hatfield said his family celebrated that night by turning on every light in the house, then running outdoors to see how it looked, glowing in the moonlight.

Before ever getting to the point of posing for their graduation day photograph, they and millions of their generation had been forged by the fires of the Great Depression and World War II.

Nothing the future could throw at them could be as tough as what they had already stared down. As they stood together — as solid as that limestone wall — not knowing what the future would hold for them, they did know one thing: Their time was now.





Fieldhouse collapse

Hatfield, Fisher and Waters had been together during one of Purdue's darkest hours, on Feb. 24, 1947, when the wooden bleachers in the fieldhouse collapsed during the Purdue–Wisconsin basketball game. Like a house of cards succumbing to a breath of wind, the bleachers came tumbling down, killing three students and injuring more than 200 others.

The three of them rode the bleachers down to the ground like broncobusters, lifting their feet at the last second to escape with minor bruises. They pulled others from the mayhem to safety. Waters removed a large wooden splinter from the calf of a fellow student.

That's E. C. Bashaw, BS '47, MS '48, on the left. He also was born in Mt. Juliet and went to high school with Hatfield. Both went to Martin Junior College (later renamed the University of Tennessee at Martin), where Bashaw played football as a 180–pound offensive lineman.

"Most of the guys on the team had already gone away to war," said Bashaw. "Otherwise, I don't think I ever would have gotten the chance to try out because I wasn't very good."

He and other athletes worked as janitors to pay for their educations.

"We didn't have scholarships at Martin, so athletes had to work to keep the gymnasium and the football field clean to pay our way through school."

He studied agriculture at the suggestion of his high school vo–ag teacher, who he remembers as Mr. Browning.

"I didn't know much about agriculture back then," Bashaw said, "but Mr. Browning was a good teacher."

Bashaw was the first of the four Tennesseans to marry. He would have been at the game at the fieldhouse that night, too, but he decided to stay home with his wife, Bettye, in their one–bedroom apartment near campus.

"Give of your talents and skills to build a better environment," Hovde concluded. "And guard well the precious freedoms of America, lest you be one of those who will cause their loss."

Not these four. No chance.

From here, they all went on to productive lives as husbands and fathers. Each went on to rewarding professional careers, too. Bashaw established himself at Texas A&M University as one of the world's foremost forage grass researchers. Likewise, Fisher gained renown as a developer of cotton through his research in Arizona and Utah. They co–authored a research paper while working on their postgraduate degrees at Texas A&M.

Waters was an insurance executive in Ohio and Tennessee, and Hatfield helped to build one of the largest independent poultry producers in the world in northwest Georgia, working there until his death in 2008.

But when they posed for this photo in front of the administration building, with smiles as bright as their futures, they did not know this would be the last time the four of them would all be together.


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